When I last wrote I waxed lyrical like a lovesick teenager about my one true love: baking, and how deprived I am without a cookie jar of homemade treats to hand. I can now say, dear reader, that, without being lude, that craving has at last been fulfilled.
My return to the family home for my mum’s birthday brought with it the biggest treat of all: an oven. And as it’s a birthday we needed a birthday cake. We also needed an afternoon tea for my mum and her friends. So, cake, cake, cake everywhere! I was frolicking in a shower of cake. (Sometimes, I worry I sound repetitive. My next post won’t be about cake. Probably.)
Mum’s birthday tea had all the trappings of a quintessential idyll. Matching tea cups and saucers, the pert little milk jug and sugar bowl, a bowl of strawberry jam, another of thick clotted cream, a steaming teapot, and the two-tier tower of sultana-studded scones and chocolate brownies. Here, I nonchalantly brush my shoulders and say ‘I just whipped them up earlier’ which I genuinely did, very quickly in my pyjamas before dashing to a dentist appointment. Not new to baking in my pyjamas it is now a rare treat, for one with time and the leisure to say after breakfast, ‘I think I’ll do some baking!’
Scones have always been tricky to master; to add baking powder or not to add baking powder? No one wants a measly pancake of a scone that you can barely halve. The trick I’ve learnt is that there is no need for baking powder if, at the end of forming the mix, you add the milk quickly. The flour will immediately react to the moisture and start forming gluten. Swiftly combine all the soft lumps of flour and butter with the milk into a dough, pat out on a surface to a nice thick height, about 5cm, then cut out the scones with a circular cutter, pressing down but not twisting which would make the scones rise unevenly. If this isn’t all done quickly the rising process will be reduced and I speak from experience that there is crushing disappointment at the sight of a meagre scone.
Planning for the birthday cake started over a month ago. Browsing recipes on Pinterest means no cake is ever good enough, so endless evenings were spent thinking about cake to the detriment of my social life. My mum is devoted to the indulgent spread that is Nutella. Just hand her a loaf of bread and a knife and watch that jar gradually empty. Thus, what could be more fitting than a chocolate hazelnut birthday cake? I scoured the internet searching for the perfect recipe, visiting some favourite baking blogs like Call Me Cupcake, Great British Chefs, my one and only Nigel Slater’s column, and Butter and Brioche. It was probably the title alone that swayed my final decision towards Butter and Brioche’s ‘Chocolate Hazelnut Cake with Gianduja Praline Swiss Meringue Buttercream’. A mouthful admittedly, but a delicious one.
I was planning to write about all this cake yesterday but unfortunately it clashed with me finally finishing the 1200 page tome It by Stephen King, after a month and a half of frantic reading, and I honestly wasn’t in a good place, especially in the cheerful mood to give this cake the justice it deserves. Nauseous anger isn’t a good accompaniment to food. (If anyone else has read It you will understand where I am coming from.) Now, after a night’s sleep and a baking-filled morning, It is yesterday’s news and I’m back to thinking about chocolate hazelnut cake, praline and the glossy, arm- and tooth-aching confection that is Swiss meringue buttercream.
Lustrous and sparkling, like the smoothly styled hair of a celebrity, this buttercream is also thick and tacky enough to cement bricks. A sneaky finger dipped in the goo and greedily consumed still came away red-handed, or in this case, white-handed, the residue only disappearing after fierce scrubbing under the tap. Egg whites and sugar are whisked together over a little steaming water, a bain-marie, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is warm and voluminous. Then, off the heat, the process is continued, whisking until cool, shiny and sticky. Although laborious (and muscle straining for puny arms) it is hypnotising to watch the meringue become glossier, and oh so tempting to dip in a finger. To this you add chunks of softened butter until it’s all (two whole packets I’ll add!) incorporated, vanilla, and melted hazelnut-chocolate (Tesco, unfortunately, doesn’t sell Gianduja). And ta-da! You’re left with a softly whipped pile of hazelnut-speckled meringue. Light and moussey, it tastes heavenly; rich and creamy with chocolate.
Although I enjoyed baking and building this cake – dolloping each of the three sponges with huge blobs of buttercream, sprinkling with bittersweet hazelnut praline and then stacking cautiously like Jenga pieces – the sponge had a slightly cloying taste from the oily nuts, which overpowered the chocolate flavour. The praline on each layer became lost or dissolved from the buttercream’s moisture. To regain some of that crunch I dipped some roasted hazelnuts in caramel to decorate the top. Overall, it was a moist and rich cake, a delicious treat to both eat and tackle in the kitchen, but I don’t plan to make it again. The buttercream on the other hand, that is with me to stay and I’ll no doubt find myself eating it with a spoon in lieu of that cookie jar of homemade treats.